By Whitney Scharer
Picador (hardcover, pp 320) 

Lee Miller occupies a place in the pantheon of great photographers alongside Henri Cartier-Bresson, Margaret Bourke-White and Robert Capa. She’s now the focus of a work of fiction marketed (and written) as an imagined life, but in fact something of a hybrid. 

The Age of Light is the first full-length novel by Whitney Scharer, whose essays, interviews and short stories have appeared in many US and UK newspapers and magazines. Approached as a falling in – and out of – love story or a fascinating glimpse of art history (the two aren’t mutually exclusive) Scharer’s prose style quickly engages the reader. 

PASSIONATE JEALOUSY…CLOSE TO DRIVING RAY INSANE

The story concentrates primarily on Miller’s time in Paris between the wars, where the American photographer met, became unofficially apprenticed to and enjoyed a turbulent affair with the artist, photographer and sculptor Man Ray. Scharer convincingly captures this 1920s hotbed of hedonism and artistic endeavour – the couple’s contemporaries included Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau – expertly weaving in the intrinsic sexism and paternalism without being overly tendentious.

As David Hare writes in his brilliant Guardian essay on Miller: “It had been part of the surrealist manifesto that artists should be able to sleep with whom they chose. Men were free, and women were muses. But when Miller, in her relationship with Ray, expected and did not even consider asking for a corresponding freedom for herself, it was the beginning of the passionate jealousy that would come close to driving Ray insane and would end in Miller’s flight from Paris.”

Scharer has a thankfully light touch when explaining photographic technicalities. In particular Miller and Man Ray’s joint, and accidental, discovery of the revolutionary darkroom technique ‘Solarisation’ –exposing a partially developed photograph to light, to create a halo effect around the subject.

SEXUAL ABUSE AND POST-WAR PTSD

Interspersed with the main story she also writes vignettes about other parts of Miller’s turbulent and often tragic life. Sexual abuse as a child – the subsequent pre-antibiotics treatment for an STD almost worse than the assault – and her wartime experiences photographing the aftermath of Nazi concentration camps. Both contributed to debilitating post war PTSD, leading Miller to abandon her career, storing boxes of matchless photographic archive in her attic, forgotten for many years.

Scharer avoids oversimplifying the two complex characters, portraying the avant-garde Man Ray, 17 years her senior, initially at least, as a mentor encouraging Miller’s nascent career. Both could be unlikeable, Man Ray self-obsessed and obsessed with his art, Miller insensitive and insecure, grappling with a growing need for self-determination, loving but not wishing to be eclipsed by her paramour. Man Ray becomes dependent and jealous of his young lover, she is suspicious of his former partner, the cabaret performer and artist’s muse Kiki de Montparnasse. Behind her beloved Rolleiflex camera, Miller’s artistic confidence grows as Man Ray’s wanes. In different ways each betrays the other, both seeking attention elsewhere. 

As a passionate love story set in an era when photography was only just becoming accepted as an art form in its own right, the book will likely work best for readers who previously knew little or nothing of Miller’s life. For those who do, it may prove less satisfactory. Scharer has undoubtedly done her research, yet the verisimilitude of the setting and back-story sit uneasily with the fictional narrative if you’re already well versed in biographical detail.

“No one can pretend that Miller’s story is anything but overwhelmingly sad,” reflects David Hare. In that context The Age of Light succeeds as a persuasive character study; but of which character, the one set in fact, or fantasy?

Anyone wishing to read the real life of this iconic photographer might consider The Lives of Lee Miller – Anthony Penrose (her son) or Lee Miller: a Life – Carolyn Burke. Better still visit the archive and museum at Miller’s former home, Farley Farm, just 25 miles from Hastings.

For further info visit: farleyshouseandgallery.co.uk  


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